A young mystery writer arranges to stay at an isolated hotel, which is closed for the winter. He plans to write a novel in 24 hours but his peace and quiet is short lived when a whole range of suspicious characters turn up one after the other. All with improbable stories to tell…
The excellent comic mystery novel by Earl Derr Biggers gets a pretty faithful adaptation by the fledgling RKO Studios. Biggers is most famous for the creation of Charlie Chan and didn’t produce a very large volume of work but this tale was very popular when released in 1913. George M Cohan (famously played by James Cagney in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (1948)) turned it into a hit stage play, which he then filmed in 1917. There were other film adaptations in 1929 and 1947, the latter with Margaret Lindsay and Eduardo Cianelli.
It’s easy to see why the novel was popular with dramatists; nearly everything takes place in the hotel, apart from scenes at the beginning and end at the local railway station. In this version the station master is played by Walter Brennan, still on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s best loved and most well-known character players.
Sadly, some of the action from the novel is missing and the plot is rather simplified, which means the climax does fall rather flat. Still the proceedings have a pleasingly light touch and the performances of the cast are of considerable assistance. Lead actors Gene Raymond and Margaret Callahan make an appealing couple, perfectly treading a fine line between the comedy and drama with the expertise of consummate professionals.
Harry Travers also scores as the local hermit and avowed misogynist but, sadly, the role isn’t as large as the one in the novel. Similarly, Eric Blore and the ever reliable Grant Mitchell are also good but, again, they don’t really get enough to do.
It’s a neat and efficient 75 minutes of entertainment but extending it to the full hour and a half and taking in some more of the original novel might have raised this from the level of an agreeable time passer into something much better. Plot and setting haven’t really dated so a more contemporary version would be a possibility. Unfortunately, it’s a literary work that is largely forgotten now; perhaps a victim of political correctness as much as anything else. While classic detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Poirot remain hugely popular, the last Charlie Chan picture was made 1981 and had Peter Ustinov cast as the Chinese detective. And that’s the problem right there: decades of white, non-Asians in the role has stigmatised it somewhat and that probably extends to other works by the same author. Which is a shame because his works are tight, well written mysteries and ripe for rediscovery.